In the Garden with a Monarch

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird … So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. ~ physicist Richard Feynman

I often think of that quote as I’m watching insects in my garden. It reminds me of how easy it is to get caught up in the idea of putting names to things so they can be tallied up on a list. It’s always my goal to learn something more than the name of an insect when possible, because it leads to a deeper appreciation of the interconnection of all life forms.

Monarch migration in northwest Ohio, September 2018

Most people are familiar with the orange and black monarch butterfly, but I wonder how many have spent time just sitting and watching what they actually do in your flower garden. That’s what I did today, and I want to share some photos with you.

The red line marks the area with the Sullivant’s and swamp milkweed.

My garden has a couple small pockets of milkweeds — Sullivant’s (Asclepias sullivantii ), swamp (A. incarnata), and butterfly (A. tuberosa). I’ve been watching every monarch butterfly that comes through the garden, because they can only lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed family. This is because their caterpillars can’t eat any other plants, and they have to be able to eat whatever plant they hatch on.

Today I was resting on my swing after finishing some garden work, and saw a monarch flitting around. I took a look through my zoom lens to see which gender it was, and when I saw it was female, I paid closer attention to see if she would lay any eggs. She flitted around gracefully, dipping in and out of the main native bed.

First I saw her nectaring on bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) —

Then on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) —

And then on blazing star (Liatris spicata) —

And she even took sustenance from the flowers of swamp milkweed, one of her larval host plants —

Then she went to the Sullivant’s milkweed (which doesn’t have any flowers right now), and I knew she would lay eggs. While she could get nectar from all the other flowers, the milkweeds are the only ones she’ll use for her eggs. And as soon as she arrived at the milkweed patch, she worked over virtually every leaf on every plant, laying egg after egg after egg, as I took photos of the process.

Notice her abdomen curled up under the leaf to lay the egg
Hanging upside down to lay her egg on the leaf of Sullivant’s milkweed
She was busy today!

Because some of the stems were sideways, she also laid lots of eggs on the topsides of the leaves. After she left, I realized that leaving those stems sideways would expose all of the eggs to the elements and make them more obvious to predators, so I staked them upright again. I know this still leaves the topside eggs in a vulnerable position, but I hope it’ll at least give the underside eggs a better chance.

The survival rate of monarch eggs and caterpillars is very low, with fewer than 10% of them making it to healthy butterfly-adulthood. In recent years, many people have begun raising them indoors in an effort to increase the survival rate, but that practice is controversial. I did it a couple times myself and learned a lot from watching the amazing process of metamorphosis. But now I’ve decided not to interfere with nature most of the time, and I think the best thing we can do to help them is to plant as much milkweed as possible. That gives them more places to lay those eggs, hopefully increasing the numbers that can survive predation and disease.

In about four days I hope to see the tiny little caterpillars start to munch their way around those milkweed plants. And two weeks after that, those that survive will make their beautiful green chrysalises and begin that magical transformation into the iconic orange and black butterfly that will migrate to Mexico in the fall. It’s such a rewarding experience to see that my garden is home to so many types of insects. It makes me feel very much connected to the basic life processes on our planet, and that’s one of the joys of my life. I wish every human could have this feeling.

My Big Bug Year is Finally Taking Off!

So what is it now, something like week five of the “new normal”? Or is it 500? It’s hard to keep track of time these days. And if you’re like me, you’ve perhaps been surprised at how many different emotions you can feel in a single day on this roller coaster. But I think I’m starting to get adjusted to the routine-that’s-not-a-routine of my new daily life. There’s some peace in accepting that, I suppose. There’s no point in fighting it, in any case.

Brown thrasher - blog
Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

I’ve been helped enormously by the emergence of insects, so I can really dig into Kim’s Big Bug Year — finally!!! Every year I watch with envy as my friends to the south start posting their photos of insects many weeks before we have any up here along the shore of Lake Erie. But it’s finally our turn to play, and I’m so grateful that I started this project a couple months ago. And as I’ve been out looking for insects lately, I’ve been surprised to find that I’m rediscovering the joy of birding. Today, for instance, I was walking around a small lake surrounded with woods, when I heard the distinctly beautiful song of a Brown Thrasher. And the encounter was made more special because I was there alone with the bird for a couple minutes, so I could enjoy him without distraction. (You can hear their song here.)

Greater bee fly on bloodroot
Greater Bee Fly probing Bloodroot with his long, stiff proboscis

Our native wildflowers are just starting to bloom, and that’s why the insects are suddenly here in larger numbers and easier to find. I spent a half hour observing various pollinators visiting the alabaster blossoms in a bloodroot patch.  One of the insects I see most often on bloodroot is the Greater Bee Fly. Even before I focus my camera on it, I can see the  long, stiff proboscis probing the center of the flower. I always thought a proboscis was used to gather nectar, but I’ve just discovered that bloodroot doesn’t have any nectar; it only offers pollen to its insect visitors. I think I need to investigate this further, because it doesn’t seem possible that pollen could be sucked up by the proboscis, so why is this particular insect so fond of this plant? In times like this I wish I could have a quick conference call with a botanist and an entomologist!

The lovely leaves of bloodroot persist long after the flower is gone, sometimes until mid-summer.

Bloodroot leaf texture - blog
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Also among the insects cruising among the bloodroot were hover flies, mostly a single species in the Helophilus genus. I believe they’re H. fasciatus, the Narrow-headed Marsh Fly. Hover flies (aka flower flies) are some of my favorite insects because of their intricate patterns of brown and yellow. This one was enjoying a lovely pink patch of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

Helophilus fasciatus on Spring Beauty - blog

I’ve also discovered a few new-to-me species, like this Unequal Cellophane Bee. I was intrigued by the name, and found that this family of bees are so named because of  a clear substance they use to line their underground nests. I saw lots of them crawling out of their burrows in the sandy soil and flying around low to the ground. Occasionally a pair would “tussle” on the ground, which I assume was mating behavior.

Unequal cellophane bee - Colletes inaequalis - blog
Unequal Cellophane Bee (Colletes inaequalis)

And this Ridged Carrion Beetle was obviously well named, as you can clearly see the ridges on his elytra.

Ridged carrion beetle - blog

Spiders are out in full force now too, but I know lots of people are squeamish about them, so I’ll only post the one I know can’t possibly be scary to anybody. Meet the most adorable Orbus Paradise Spider, one of the jumping spiders. Jumping spiders have a way of looking at you like they’re as curious about you as you are about them. This was the first time I’d ever heard of this particular group of jumping spiders, and I was so excited I was in my own little paradise as I watched him hopping around in the dead oak leaves for about five minutes. He’s so tiny that each leaf must have been like a mountain to him, but he never faltered, never hesitated, just took a flying leap and kept going. Over and over again.

Orbus paradise spider - jumping spider - Habronattus orbus (1)

Come to think of it, that’s probably a good attitude for all of us as we navigate the coming weeks. We have so little control over what’s happening right now, and that can be scary. But maybe the thing to do is just take a leap of faith that everything will work out. And until things get back to normal, maybe we should also make sure to take a cue from this other little guy, and make some time to nap under the wildflowers.

Gnome napping under bloodroot - blog

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